Reimagining Water Infrastructure with Real Tech – Structural Solutions for Tomorrow
WOTA, a startup spun out of University of Tokyo and invested by Real Tech Fund, has developed a “small-scale decentralized water circulation system” that can reuse domestic wastewater without relying on large-scale centralized infrastructure. To date, more than 20,000 people have already showered and washed their hands with WOTA, such as in evacuation centers following the torrential rain disaster in western Japan. Yukihiro Maru (Chairman of Realtech Holdings Inc.), who has supported WOTA since its early days as a mentor, and Yosuke Maeda (CEO of WOTA) discuss the potential of WOTA only in disaster settings, but also in nursing care facilities and remote islands where water treatment is difficult.
The Impact of “WOTA” as Seen from Reports of Torrential Rain in Western Japan
Maru: It was before you even started your business that you and I first met.
Maeda: Yes, we first met in 2014, when I attended your even in Karuizawa when I was still a student. I remember your speech about how “knowledge-based manufacturing” will be required in all fields in the future, which left a strong impression on me.
Maru: You were there too! I was probably talking about some crazy stuff at the time (laughs). The term “knowledge manufacturing” means encompassing the knowledge that already exists in the world today to solve the world’s problems. I think WOTA is a perfect example that.
I can clearly recall the news in 2018, when “WOTA BOX” (*1) was used in the affected areas from the torrential rainstorm in western Japan. In that disaster, the torrential rains caused the rivers to overflow and many houses were flooded above floor level. The water supply was cut off, meaning the victims in the evacuation areas had no means to clean themselves with showers nor washing their hands. I was shocked at the irony, that although muddy water was everywhere around them, there was no “clean water” anywhere.
|1 The WOTA BOX, a mini portable water circulation plant developed and marketed by WOTA that makes water available even in areas without running water. When connected to the unit, it can reclaim more than 98% of wastewater, enabling people to shower and wash their hands outdoors or in times of disaster. The quality of the reclaimed water meets WHO drinking water standards, ensuring that safe and reliable water is available anytime, anywhere.|
Maeda: Yes, in the event of a major disaster such as a flood or earthquake, water supply is likely to be disrupted.
Maru: But by providing WOTA BOX there, disaster victims can take showers and keep their bodies clean. WOTA BOX enables water to be recycled over and over, such that many people can use water even with an extremely limited amount of water. When I saw the news report, I thought, “This is exactly the kind of technology that Japan, a disaster-prone country, needs.
Maeda: When the torrential rains hit western Japan, the company’s bank balance was almost broke. However, “solving the water problem” is our most important objective, and we were convinced that if we did not deliver WOTA to those affected areas immediately, there would be no point to our business. That’s what we communicated to our stakeholders and we made the decision to deliver WOTA to those in need.
The fuel of driving business is an “intense original experience”
Maru: The lengths that you go to help even if you’ve run out of funds is truly amazing. It is generally thought that the issue of water is how to secure water for drinking and toilets in arid regions such as the Sahara Desert in Africa. However, clean water instantly becomes unavailable even in a water-rich country like Japan, if a disaster occurs and the water supply and sewage infrastructure is disrupted. That news made me realize that in order to live healthy lives, people use far more water for showering and washing hands than for drinking.
Maeda: It was when I had just entered university that I realized the limitations of existing infrastructure systems, such as water supply and sewage systems. I entered university in 2011 and moved to Tokyo on March 10, just a day before the Great East Japan Earthquake. I was surprised by the sudden occurrence of a major earthquake after arriving in Tokyo, but what really surprised me was what happened afterwards. I immediately went to Tohoku and participated as a volunteer in the cleanup efforts of the tsunami-affected areas.
Maru: So that was the first time you saw the site of the disaster?
Maeda: Yes. In some areas, it took more than a month for the water supply to be restore. People were unable to wash their clothes or take a bath until the U.S. military arrived to help. There were elderly people and babies living in shelters for long periods of time without being able to bathe, and the conditions were unsafe from a hygienic standpoint. I strongly felt that we had to do something to solve this problem.
Maru: I believe that first hand experience is a really strong foundation for you. As you know, Mitsuru Izumo, the founder of Euglena, visited Bangladesh as an intern for an NPO when he was a university student and saw the current state of undernourishment there, led him to found Euglena, a company that aims to “save the world with Midori-Mushi”. So you have the same “intense original experience”. I believe that the greatest motivation of an entrepreneur is the knowledge that “now that I’ve seen it, I can’t possibly stop until I solve it”. Even when a business is not going well, if that strong desire is there, he or she will always be able to overcome the obstacles.
Maeda: Thank you. Because I have seen the reality of the disaster area, I’m convinced that our business is an absolute necessity. Even if our business approach deviates a little, WOTA will ultimately be needed worldwide. So we will just continue making course corrections until we reach that point. In fact, at this point in time, WOTA has been used to bathe more than 20,000 people in areas affected by disasters, including the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake and the 2018 Hokkaido bile quake.
WOSH – popularized by COVID-19
Maru: Your second product, the “WOSH” (*2) water circulation hand-washing stand, also received a lot of attention in the news related to the new coronavirus. The Real Tech Fund decided to invest in WOTA in 2021, or more precisely, in October 2020. Although the investment decision had nothing to do with the pandemic, it was a great opportunity for WOSH to attract attention.
|2 WOSH: A water circulation hand-washing stand that can be easily installed in places where there is no running water. More than 98% of the water used can be circulated on site, making it possible to wash hands as many as 500 times with only 20 liters of water. During the time that hands are being washed, a smart phone, to which many germs adhere, can be inserted into the device to automatically disinfect it with ultraviolet light.|
Maeda: Yes, this was introduced in several news stories in relation to the well-known importance of hand washing in preventing the spread of COVID. The idea for WOSH actually came from feedback from disaster sites. In many disaster-stricken areas, people cannot wash their hands after using the restroom, so illnesses such as norovirus can spread. So someone who saw WOTA asked us if we could make a smaller water recycling device specifically for hand washing.
Maru: So WOSH was popularized by the new strain of COVID, but the motivation for developing WOSH was also to improve hygiene in times of disaster?
Maeda: Yes, the development of WOSH provided us with significant knowledge that has since then been useful. The water used for handwashing contains more detergent than that used for showering, so the load on water treatment is higher. The technological breakthrough that we could process such water enabled us to develop WOSH which is now installed in hundreds of malls such as in Ginza, and has provided for over 2 million use cases in handwashing. No one in Japan had ever used recycled water to wash hands or take a bath before the introduction of WOSH and WOTA BOX, but we believe that the use of recycled water will become widespread in Japan in the future.
Maru: That is exactly where WOTA’s strength lies. By analyzing a large amount of data on the composition of water and sewage systems, we have created a technology that optimizes the treatment of once-used water. Moreover, WOTA recently demonstrated that they could reclaim the entirety of the wastewater from a house through biological treatment methods using microorganisms in addition to membrane and chemical treatment.
Sewage, including human waste, contains large amounts of organic matter such as oil, bacteria, and viruses, with its composition dependent on the location, time, and user. By using ultra-compact devices that can clean and purify sewage with such an inconsistent composition, we have revolutionized water recycling infrastructure from centralized systems that have been managed by the government, to small water processing systems.
The need for WOTA surely exists throughout the world. For example, many of the countless small islands made up of coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean have difficulty in securing a stable supply of clean water and are unable to maintain sewage systems. If WOTA were to be installed in such island villages, a water supply and sewerage system could be erected just for 10 houses. The cost benefit would also be huge compared to building water and sewage infrastructure.
Maeda: Exactly. A “big water system” created mainly by the national government requires a great deal of time, effort, and money to install. The whole process of sourcing water from rivers and lake, disinfecting it, transporting it, and cleaning sewage was only made possible by large corporations specializing in their respective areas of expertise. Perhaps the effort to optimize this division of labor, was what led to the challenge to create the “small-scale decentralized water circulation system”.
Improving the Quality of Life in Nursing Homes with WOSH
Maru: To begin with, how did you become interested in “water” Maeda-kun? Perhaps this is a poor way of putting it but, I heard that you were born in a fairly rural area of Tokushima Prefecture.
Maeda: That’s right. Tokushima still has a fairly low water and sewage penetration rate amongst Japan, and drinking water from wells and streams were my daily routine as a child. In such an area, the river water was very clean, and I took the blessings of natural water for granted. When I came to Tokyo, the thing that made me feel most uncomfortable was the distance between me and natural water. For example, when I asked local people about the Kanda River, their response was, “I have never swam in it, and I don’t even know if I can swim in it,” and I remember feeling odd that their daily lives are so disconnected from such a close source of water.
Maru: In the old days, even the Kanda River was a place where children swam and people ate the fish they caught from it. The norm today isn’t the norm of the past – there have been great changes in how Japanese people interact with water. I believe that WOTA’s business has the impact to make a huge change there. Just the other day on a business trip, I had an incident that made me think, “I should definitely consult with Maeda-kun about this”, I met a researcher in Gifu Prefecture who told me that nursing homes today have a huge problem related to water that affects the quality of life of residents.
Maeda: What do you mean by that?
Maru: Hair washing. Healthy young people basically wash their hair every day, right? But for those who are bedridden in nursing homes, it is very difficult to wash their hair, and many of them can only wash their hair twice a week when they take a bath. But in the summer, if they don’t wash their hair, it gets sticky with sweat and grease, smells bad, and is not hygienic. So the researcher built a device that allows people to wash their hair even while they are lying on beds and collects the washed water.
Maeda: I see, that is amazing.
Maru: But again, he’s not a mechanical expert, so the device was large and not yet practical. The moment I saw the device, I thought, “WOTA can make a device to wash hair in nursing homes!”
Maeda: Yes, I think it will be possible soon.
Maru: Let’s do it! WOTA’s business started with Maeka-kun’s strong desire to “solve the problem of water in the event of a large-scale disaster,” and that desire has become and will remain as the core of WOTA’s business going forward. On the other hand, the technology and knowledge that WOTA has developed has the potential to solve various people’s problems and issues related to water, as can be seen in the example of the nursing home mentioned earlier. I think it is really cool that Maeda-kun is only in his 20s, yet he is seriously trying to solve the world’s problems through deep tech.
Maeda: Thank you, I will do my best to propel your thoughts into my effort of solving the world’s water problems.
Company Website: https://wota.co.jp/en/